You know the childhood saying “stick a needle in my eye”? Well, it’s supposed to show how serious you are about something and not actually mean you should stick a needle in your eye. But that’s essentially what sclera tattooing is: using a needle to inject ink into the whites of your eyes (otherwise known as the sclera) to change their color.
Catt Gallinger, a 24-year-old model from Ottawa, Canada, tried this form of eyeball tattooing with bad consequences and is now warning everyone about the dangers via social media. As her Facebook post explained:
This was caused by undiluted ink, over injection, not enough/smaller injections sights. There are multiple people who can attest that my aftercare was good and any other part of what I am saying. I am NOT sharing this with you to cause trouble, I am sharing this to warn you to research who you get your procedures by as well as how the procedure should be properly done. I have been to the hospital three times, I had no furry pets to cause any dander, and I wash my hands every time I do anything with my eye, both before and afterwards. I was on antibiotic drops for the first week and a half and have been on steroid drops for four days now, with little success at bringing down the internal swelling. The external swelling lasted for almost a week. The photos show the day of (purple drop), the day after(swollen shut) and now three weeks later. I will add more throughout the process Just please be cautious who you get your mods from and do your research. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I will be posting updates during the process publicly on my wall.
Twenty-four year old Catt Gallinger’s fun excursion into body art ended in horror when an eye tattoo left her partially blinded and oozing purple tears. The tattoo was meant to have tinted her sclera, the white part of her eye, but instead went terribly wrong, causing pain
As you can see, pain, oozing purple tears, bad eye swelling and loss of vision resulted. She tried antibiotic eye drops but ended up having to go to a hospital. Time will tell how much of her vision she will end up regaining and whether more complications will occur.
The eye is a complex structure and machine serving many purposes. Interfering with its structure in any way can be like randomly poking holes and injecting things into your car.
Even if the needle doesn’t go too deep, it still enters the sclera (the white portion of the eye), which is continuous with the cornea (the clear portion of the front of the eye that serves as the window through which light passes). The sclera and the cornea collectively form the outermost layer of the eye (not counting the layer of tears and mucus on the surface). Since the two are interconnected and the sclera helps maintain the shape of the eyeball, even if you manage to avoid puncturing the cornea, damaging or injecting something such as ink or microorganisms into the sclera could end up affecting the cornea. For example, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) websiteincluded a case in which ink injected into the sclera ended up reaching the innermost layer of the cornea as well as the retina. The cornea, as the National Eye Institute (NEI) website describes, itself consists of several layers, with each playing an important function.
The surface of the cornea is the epithelium, a lining of cells that helps your eye absorb oxygen and nutrients from tears and the outside world and protect your eye from foreign objects such as water, dust, dirt and microorganisms. Damaging your corneal epithelium in any way can impair its ability to protect and feed your eye. Think of this as significantly damaging the outside doors and walls of your car. Even if you patch up the damage, your car may not ever be protected as well again.
Your corneal epithelium also has thousands of nerve endings, which is why getting even a speck of dust in your eye can hurt so much. Pain is your body’s way of saying, “Nooooo, don’t do this.” Therefore, your body tends to have more nerve endings in areas that it wants to protect, like your groin and your eye.
The next, deeper layer of the cornea is Bowman’s membrane, which provides further protection for the eye and consists of collagen. Messing around with a collagen layer can be like going to a well-manicured garden with a scimitar and randomly hacking away. Plants may grow back, but they often do so in a disorganized manner. Similarly, damaging the collagen layer with a foreign substance can lead to collagen regrowing to form a scar. Scars can then impair the ability to see.
There’s more collagen along with water in the next layer, the stroma, the thickest layer of the cornea and the sclera. The combination of water and protein keeps the cornea rather elastic and transparent. Typically there’s fluid circulating that flows from inside the eye into the stroma and back out again with help from the endothelium, as described shortly.
Below the stroma is Descemet’s membrane, another protective layer. Having several protective layers is like wearing pants, pads, underwear and a cup while playing football. Sure, you can wear only a pair of underwear on the football field, but are you really ready to get tackled?
And right under this membrane is the endothelium. Think of the endothelium as the sump pump for the stroma layer of the cornea and sclera, helping pump out fluid so that the stroma doesn’t swell and become thick and opaque.
Collectively, in addition to protecting the rest of your eye, the corneal layers handle a majority (65% to 75%) of your eye’s ability to focus light and images onto your retina, the structure responsible for transmitting images to your brain. Your cornea and your underlying lens bend the light in such a way that it hits the retina (which is in the back of your eyeball) appropriately. So perturbing your cornea in any way can make images fuzzy, unfocused or even impossible to see.
The other key role that the cornea plays is filtering out and protecting your lens and retina from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) light. In other words, the cornea serves as sunscreen for the eye. Damaging the cornea can be like replacing sunscreen with salad dressing.
All of this assumes that the needle and the ink don’t go deeper than the sclera or the cornea. But as the AAO case showed, things can travel further happen since the sclera and cornea are connected directly or indirectly to underlying structures such as the iris, lens, pupil, muscles, vitreous body, retina, nerves, etc. If any of these structures are damaged, further and even more serious injury could occur. Of course, deeply and significantly penetrating the sclera could end up rupturing the eyeball.
Thus, eye tattooing is very dangerous. It is also very unregulated. There are no guarantees that the equipment being used is clean, that the tattoo artists have any knowledge or understanding of the eye, or that the materials being injected into your eye won’t harm you. Beware of any claims made about the safety of eye tattooing. It could result in a bad infection, impairment or loss of vision, or even death from complications. Even scarier is the fact that complications could be unseen or occur long after the eye tattooing since the procedure weakens the eye’s natural protective mechanisms. There is a lack of scientific studies evaluating the long-term effects of eye tattoos.
Gallinger warned that anyone interested in eye tattooing should look into artists and their portfolios and talk to their clients before allowing them to stick a needle in your eye. Let me go further than that: Just don’t do it. Is it really worth risking your vision and potentially your life to change the color of your eyes? One problem, one complication, and you may not be able to look at anything ever again.